Harshit Agrawal considers the notion of beauty, authorship in technology-based art

The AI artist speaks to STIR on authorship in art, beauty, representation, biases, and developing an inclusive foundation for artificial intelligence in art.

by Girinandini SinghPublished on : Feb 19, 2021

When we think of technology, we conjure up images of ones and zeros, of data driven machines, lasers and motherboards. We think of computers and innovation as the tools of science and rationale, not the emotive medium of the artist. And yet art and technology have long been steadfast partners, intertwined in more ways than we can imagine. Time and again artists have turned to technology in finding new forms of expressing themselves, think of (Andy) Warhol’s silkscreen printing, or the camera giving birth to the visual art. The medium of the day is data-driven, it is technologically augmented, it is the layered reality of the virtual world which we step into to play, to exist, to emote within. With the internet coming of age there is an inexplicable boom in new media art and technology, and at a time when we celebrate the onset of possibly a new aesthetic, we have to stop to question the interpretation of beauty, humanity, and of authorship in art through the highly synthetic lens of digitisation.

For Bengaluru-based AI artist Harshit Agrawal it is this conundrum of technological artistic expression which preoccupies his own process of creation.

Emergent Patterns | Harshit Agrawal| STIRworld
Emergent Patterns Image: Harshit Agrawal

“I think often about our conceptions of beauty, which at least for now haven't been completely transformed as a result of technology-based art. We are still away from a world where majority of what we consume visually will be created and delivered to us by technology, where truly one would have the scope to immerse themselves into alternate visual realities and have only that as a basis for building up a new collective notion, and by extension an individual notion, of beauty. Having said that, no doubt there is a new aesthetic emerging which is stemming from our creation and consumption of technology,” he says.

Masked Reality | Harshit Agrawal | STIRworld
Masked Reality Image: Harshit Agrawal

Agrawal pushes the boundaries of the creative process testing and playing with technology to interpret a traditional aesthetic theory with data-driven algorithms. For instance, his works Emergent Patterns and Latent Landscapes take traditional subject matters such as landscapes and still-life and examines it through a hybrid form of production. The work itself is created using AI algorithms (namely GAN - generative adversarial networks, which is very similar to the neural network of the human brain) and then printed. Looking closely at the artwork one notices saturated spots of pixels cumulated in places, uncanny ghost-like edges emerge as a result of how the underlying neural network has processed the data-set of thousands of famous paintings through its own creative undertaking.

He explains, “Nowhere in the process is the machine told any explicit rules about composition, colour or texture, leaving it to learn this solely from the data-set of paintings I had especially curated for it”. Instead, the AI creates new and original works pixel-by-pixel, unlike the human artist’s process of creation where the painting is born stroke by stroke - painstakingly layered. It is the contrast between the two processes which implies at the beauty of the work, further drawn out when a human artist is brought on as a collaborator with the machine. The two worlds of pixel-by-pixel generation and stroke-by-stroke painting interplay within the same work, inviting the audience to reflect on such unifications in the broader emerging techno-cultural context”.  

Machinic Situatedness | Harshit Agrawal | STIRworld
Machinic Situatedness Image: Harshit Agrawal

“This is my true reality as an artist, one that is split between a digital space for creation but a physical space for existence. I am constantly pushing at the narratives of a post-human world, building bridges connecting the two,” he goes on. As an artist working in the ever-expanding realm of technology and new media, Aggarwal recognises the potential of this exciting interface, which negotiates between the new and the traditional aesthetic finding its way into our collective reality. It is a recognition of the dual existence we lead today, a call to become more conscious of it thereby engaging in meaningful conversations around it. “This is the only way we will be able to steer and shape how technology integrates into our reality, rather than letting corporations and governments define this for us, we need to engage with our own motives towards it,” he adds.

(author)ise | Harshit Agrawal | STIRworld
(author)ise Image: Harshit Agrawal

Representational biases are inherent in the context of AI art, a result of the underlying algorithms, and go a long way in perpetuating biases and the dominance of one group over another. These biases come up across many dimensions of technological and digital tools, for instance face recognition failing to recognise ethnicities. A recurring theme in the artist’s own practice is to address this inherent bias by creating more inclusive data-sets. As AI art is steadily increasing in popularity, a visual trend which is hard to ignore is the reflection of European and American aesthetic theories and art histories. One reason for this is that most established artists working with AI belong to these regions which are developed and provide access to digital art archives. Even so Aggarwal in his art practice pushes to broaden the scope of an AI machine’s cultural underpinning to ensure a truly democratic medium.

Tandem | Harshit Agrawal | STIRworld
Tandem Image: Harshit Agrawal

An introspective theme which presents itself repeatedly in the artist’s practice is a form of self-questioning, whereby he uses his machine-based medium to comment on technology itself. He does so by creating alternate and sometimes extreme narratives to pull the audience in, to spark a reflection on the very nature of our digital lives. With technology in all its forms being a primary driver of our existence on the planet today, it is impossible not to engage with it through the emotive medium of art, through a form creation, collaboration, and unification. An example of this is the work ‘(author)ise’, which explores the omnipresent influence of AI in all our digital interactions brought into a physical space. In this inspection of an extreme narrative, one begins writing, till they find their control slipping, their hand taken over by the machine to continue the process of writing on the basis of what the machine considers as ‘appropriate’. It is a subversion of the thinking entity and the mechanical executor. “The audience is left to meditate on the question whether the piece of text written on the paper belongs to them or to the machine/AI? I invite them to rethink and be mindful of authorship and authorisation of digital devices, and the corporations who run those machines in their lives, especially as digital devices continue to grow in their intelligence,” Agrawal cautions us all.

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